Officials focus on prom, senior week fears

Howard speakers advise parents on how to handle end-of-year festivities

March 29, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

For many Howard County parents, a child's senior year in high school is one of the most proud and exciting times in their lives.

It can also be one of the scariest.

What many teen-agers call rites-of-passage and coming-of-age events that "everyone" does can be wild, unchaperoned, risky activities.

That's why the PTSA at Oakland Mills High School and the Centennial High School Parent Support Network put together a program this week called "Everything a Parent Ever Wanted to Know About Prom, Graduation and Senior Week, But Was Afraid to Ask."

HCDrugFree, a countywide coalition of parents, educators and county agencies, helped with the program. Speakers like Howard County State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon, District Judge James Sfekas and Ocean City Police Officer Barry Neeb were included.

The speakers' jobs were twofold -- to assuage parents' fears that their kids are going to get drunk at prom and graduation parties or at senior week in Ocean City, and to make them aware that that's what many will do.

Other schools in the county have drug- and alcohol-awareness programs, but Oakland Mills PTSA President Suzanne Whitmore said she didn't know if any have been tied to prom, graduation and the traditional beach bash known as senior week.

Gene Madiou, whose son is a senior at River Hill High School, had heard horror stories, particularly about the week new graduates spend unchaperoned in Ocean City.

"I was concerned before going to that meeting, and I felt a lot better afterward," he said.

Neeb stressed how much the beach town's Police Department has cracked down on underage drinking since 1995, when five young people died after drinking.

During the three weeks in June when more than 100,000 graduates descend on Ocean City, plainclothes and uniformed police officers roam the beaches, boardwalks and hotels and ride the city buses. They confiscate liquor, make about 600 arrests and write "as many alcohol citations as the Howard County Police Department does in a year," Neeb said.

They also have trained store owners and clerks to be diligent about carding young people.

But the night wasn't meant just to smooth ruffled parents' feathers.

Howard County school board member Stephen C. Bounds said many parents needed to be riled up.

"We know [from surveys] that kids in Howard County are better educated about the dangers of drug and alcohol use than other kids," Bounds told parents. "But their behaviors have never been much different -- in fact, they've sometimes been worse. What we do know is you [parents] make the difference. There are some really substantial things you can do. You need to be actively involved."

`Check up on them'

Bounds said it's OK to allow teen-agers to go to parties after prom and graduation, but "they need to know that you're going to check up on them."

Parents should call the parents of the party-thrower to make sure they will be there, offer to help chaperon or drop by to see how things are going.

When the students get home, Bounds recommended the "hug test" -- a ruse designed to smell whatever the teen has been drinking or smoking.

"Look them in the eye, take a deep breath and give them a hug," Bounds said, as parents laughed and the few students in the audience groaned.

Liability factors

McLendon and Sfekas talked to parents about adult liability when parties are thrown at their homes and alcohol is served.

Parents can be held liable, found negligent by a judge or even sued in some cases, McLendon said, even if they weren't home at the time of an unauthorized party. Sfekas went over other laws, statistics and little-known facts that parents should know.

He said parents should realize that their kids and their kids' friends probably drink and/or smoke marijuana.

"Don't think that alcoholics do not go to your kids' school, because they do," Sfekas warned. "Do not think that some of your kids' friends are not alcoholics, because they are."

He told parents that if their child "just happens" to be in a car after the prom or graduation with people who are drinking or smoking pot -- but isn't participating -- that child is breaking the law.

The education was just what many parents were looking for.

Sandy McGehee's oldest child is a junior at Oakland Mills, but she attended the meeting to hear the speakers and collect the handouts so she could tell her children about the "consequences of poor choices."

`Some reservations'

Diane Cohen has a daughter who is a senior at Atholton High School. Cohen said she is as concerned about sex as she is about drugs and alcohol.

"We did say `yes' to the trip to the beach, but I did have some reservations," Cohen said. "You hear about all of the drinking, and I'm guessing a lot of sex [is] going on. It's the first time away from home for a lot of them, unchaperoned. I hadn't heard any specific facts, but the buzz that goes around is there's just lots of drinking and lots of bed swapping."

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